CELTICS 114, RAPTORS 111
Celtics wrap up Toronto
Pierce leads rejuvenated offense to fourth straight impressive win
One week ago today, the Celtics were mired in a four-game skid, stuck on a tarmac in a blinding snowstorm, still reeling after blowing a 29-point lead, and about to enter a meaty part of the schedule. They had been booed off the FleetCenter floor the night before, Paul Pierce had been so mad he wouldn't talk, and coach Jim O'Brien talked about the need to stay together and be resilient.
Something clicked since that dreadful night. As Raptors coach Kevin O'Neill said before last night's game, "If you have a good team, you respond from losses like that. And they've had three huge wins since then."
Make that four huge wins.
The Celtics once again showcased an offense that even Doug Moe could embrace, rolling up 114 points in a 114-111 victory over the feisty Raptors. The Celtics are averaging 110 points over the last five games and, once again, shot the ball well, connecting on 49 percent.
This can be habit forming -- and thoroughly enjoyable to watch. This is more what Danny Ainge envisioned, not the bag-over-his-head unit that slogged through November or the merry band of 3-point flingers from last season. The Celtics put on a second-quarter clinic to build a 12-point halftime lead, then nursed it all the way to the end, surviving when a long, challenged, fallaway trey from Vince Carter clanged off the side of the rim as time expired.
"I think our offense is really doing a hell of a job," said understated coach Jim O'Brien, who may be morphing into Paul Westhead before our very eyes. "We're shooting the basketball well and putting up a lot of points because we're keeping up the tempo. So I'm very pleased."
He should be. He got 33 from Old Reliable, Pierce, 13 of them in the second period, when the Celtics scored 39 points and shot 16 of 21 from the field. Mike James, coming off a career-high 24-point game Wednesday, added 21. The Celtics needed all of that and more, as Toronto, which had won five in a row since making the big trade with Chicago, got 35 from Carter (including five treys) and 31 from Donyell Marshall (seven treys).
"We had to fight like dogs in the second half to catch up," said Carter, who was 13 of 25 from the field.
But they never did. They came close, but every time they did, a Celtic was there to make the big play.
Example 1: The Raptors pulled to within 96-89 with 6:24 left and Pierce missed a long jumper. But Tony Battie, looking active and spry, grabbed the rebound, threw it out to Jiri Welsch, who promptly nailed a trey.
Example 2: A Carter 3-pointer with 4:44 to play brought the Raptors to within 101-98. Toronto, which trailed by 15 in the third and by 14 with 8:12 to play, was just one possession from the first tie since the first quarter. But James stepped up and made a huge trey and then, after Jalen Rose (1 of 13) missed, Welsch connected from international waters to make it a 9-point game. As the Raptors called time, Welsch pumped his fists on the way to the bench.
"I was kind of struggling with my shot, but I made them when we needed them," said Welsch, who had 8 points on 3-of-10 shooting. "I knew I had to take the shot. I'm not going to get a better look. You can't worry about the fact that you missed five in a row. It's about good looks. And that was a good look."
The Raptors didn't go away. Since the deal with Chicago that imported Rose, Marshall, and Lonny Baxter, the Raptors had been 5-0 and averaged 100 points a game. As one Toronto official mused afterward, "I wish I'd taken the over in this one." The Celtics' 107-98 lead was soon trimmed to 4, then 2 with 2.9 seconds left on a Carter trey. Pierce was fouled, but made only one of two, giving Toronto one final shot.
Carter, of course, took it. But he had only two seconds to get it off and it wasn't really close. Pierce raised his arm in triumph as the horn sounded and the Celtics walked off the floor in much better spirits than a week earlier.
"We knew we'd come out of it eventually," said James, referring to the funk which, hopefully for their sake, ended with the devastating loss to the Suns. "It's sort of like a flower. When you first plant it, it's just a seed and you never really see anything. You water it, but you can't see that it's getting strong underneath, building roots. Well, I believe that flower is starting to bloom. I think we're starting to make some noise. We're not a joke anymore."
That's what a week in the NBA can do.
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.